Bacteriophage T4 consists of a head for protecting its genome and a sheathed tail for inserting its genome into a host. The tail terminates with a multiprotein baseplate that changes its conformation from a "high-energy" dome-shaped to a "low-energy" star-shaped structure during infection. Although these two structures represent different minima in the total energy landscape of the baseplate assembly, as the dome-shaped structure readily changes to the star-shaped structure when the virus infects a host bacterium, the dome-shaped structure must have more energy than the star-shaped structure. Here we describe the electron microscopy structure of a 3.3-MDa in vitro-assembled star-shaped baseplate with a resolution of 3.8 Å. This structure, together with other genetic and structural data, shows why the high-energy baseplate is formed in the presence of the central hub and how the baseplate changes to the low-energy structure, via two steps during infection. Thus, the presence of the central hub is required to initiate the assembly of metastable, high-energy structures. If the high-energy structure is formed and stabilized faster than the low-energy structure, there will be insufficient components to assemble the low-energy structure.
Keywords: bacteriophage T4; baseplate assembly; conformational changes; cryo-EM reconstruction; near-atomic resolution.